Berlusconi visits island overwhelmed by migrants

Image: Would-be immigrants in a boat are helped
Would-be immigrants arrive in Lampedusa, Italy, on Wednesday ahead of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's visit to deal with overcrowding on the island.ALBERTO PIZZOLI / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Premier Silvio Berlusconi promised Wednesday to quickly evacuate the thousands of North African migrants who have overwhelmed the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, earning cheers from residents exasperated by the arrivals.

A Navy ship and a commercial ferry arrived in the morning, and at least three more were expected throughout the day to pick up the migrants, said Cosimo Alessandro Nicastro, commander of the Italian Coast Guard. The ships will move some to temporary shelters elsewhere in Italy.

"Within 48 to 60 hours Lampedusa will be inhabited only by Lampedusa residents," Berlusconi said.

The premier was on his first visit to the island since the migrant crisis broke in January as unrest spread across North Africa. Since, then, some 18,000 migrants, mostly Tunisian, have arrived on the island, overwhelming the local immigrant center, outnumbering the island's local population, and forcing many to sleep in makeshift tent camps or in fields as they wait for transfers.

"The migrants who arrive on the docks of Lampedusa's port will be immediately put on boats for other destinations," either back to Tunisia or detention centers elsewhere in Italy, Berlusconi told a news conference.

Those ineligible for political asylum or without jobs awaiting them in Italy are given deportation orders.

Berlusconi said that ships on their way had a capacity of as many as 10,000 passengers, and vowed that future arrivals wouldn't be left to linger on the island for days.

The government is counting on pledges by Tunisia to increase patrols of its ports and coastline and to take back at least some of the migrants, Berlusconi said.

The premier promised incentives to fishermen, tax breaks for the islanders and an ambitious landscaping program to spruce up the island, which is closer to North Africa than to mainland Italy. He even said he would put the island up for the Nobel Peace Prize, drawing cheers. He threw in a couple of more promises: a casino and a golf course will be built to boost the island's economy.

The island lives off fishing and tourism, and the media mogul promised that state TV as well as his own TV networks would run ads promoting Lampedusa as a vacation destination.

The premier drew more chores when he said he had just bought a villa on the island. The ANSA news agency said he went to see the villa during his visit.

Many of the migrants have already been transferred to other centers in Italy, but about 6,000 remain on the island. Newspaper reports said Wednesday that about a third of them have been left without food because authorities on the island only have enough to feed 4,000.

Tensions are so high that many of the island's residents staged protests Monday at the harbor and on the docks.

Within the government, too, the crisis is creating some tension, with the anti-immigrant Northern League party pushing for quick repatriations. The opposition, meanwhile, accuses the government of poor handling of the migrant emergency.

Berlusconi met with Cabinet officials late Tuesday to review the crisis.

Italy has asked fellow European nations to share the burden and take in some of the migrants. So far, the EU border agency has sent a team in to help, but Italy is insisting on far more tangible support from individual nations.

Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said the migrant issue was raised at a meeting in London on Tuesday after talks on the Libya crisis. Frattini said that, according to a decade-old EU directive, "when there's an abnormal, sudden flow of homeless ... the EU must adopt measures for temporary protection that include the distribution of the homeless."

"This is the time to do it," he said.